Our Jewish story is one of migration. Our Jewish American story is one of receiving safe refuge on this nation’s shores. From our seminal Exodus saga to our waves of aliyah, we are a people who know the feeling of being expelled and freed, welcomed and rejected.
Today in America, we Jews experience the freedom and prosperity most of our ancestors never knew. Our current fortune confronts us with a question: what are we going to do with the freedom we have been given? How will we channel the prosperity we enjoy?
Our Jewish answer to these questions is not to stand by idly. We have been taught that “the sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied” (Pirkei Avot 5:8). Because our task as an American Jewish community is to turn creed into deed, we must insure that that justice is imminent and everlasting: we must make sure that a safe welcome on our American shores — and a legal integration into our American citizenry — is neither delayed nor denied to this generation of immigrants.
Unfortunately, justice is hard to locate in today’s immigration system. Equity is delayed for the millions of family members who face decades-long backlogs in acquiring visas. Fairness is denied to the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are forced to live in the shadows of our society; decency is denied to those who are not guaranteed the protective shelter of workplace standards and legal recourse. Righteousness is denied to the 5,000 children of immigrants who were forcibly placed in the foster care system when their parents were deported. Equality is denied to the LGBT Americans who cannot sponsor the visa of a spouse or partner the same way that a straight husband or wife can. We Jews are enjoined to pursue justice, not to tolerate its delay. We are commanded to fix this broken system.
After too many years of partisan political setbacks, our current Congress has taken the first steps towards restoring justice for American immigrants. A bipartisan “Gang of 8” U.S. senators worked to lay the framework for S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013. This bill is a crucial and important start toward addressing the humanitarian crises caused by our current non-system. It creates a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants living among us, giving them an opportunity to make lives for themselves in the same way our ancestors (including my great-grandparents) did not too many decades ago. It contains special provisions for young people who came illegally as children and have become productive, contributing members of the only country they have ever called home. It advances protections for workers, and creates new pathways for both high- and low-skilled professionals to pursue the American dream. It reunites families through its elimination of appalling backlogs, and through its creation of a new merit-based pathway to entry. It sets out a balanced approach to enforcement to help keep our country safe.
While I wholeheartedly welcome these remarkable steps toward progress, I remain concerned with some key injustices in the Senate’s proposal. The pathway to citizenship — while present — is an astonishing 13 years long, and contains some potentially unattainable financial standards for immigrants to meet. Individuals in the process of attaining legal status are denied basic social services such as health care or other crucial government assistance. LGBT couples are still unable to sponsor the immigration of their spouses. The elimination of the adult children and sibling categories from family reunification policies will continue to tear apart brothers and sisters, parents and children.
I recognize, however, that if we delay the passage of a comprehensive bill, we will deny basic rights, safeties and dignities to millions of our peers, neighbors and friends. For this reason, many of my colleagues and I have organized a focused campaign organizing Reform rabbis throughout this nation to work in support of this compromise legislation. We are talking with our congregants about our American immigration stories; we are raising awareness in our communities of the Jewish obligation always to stand on the side of the stranger, the oppressed. We are filling our nation’s newspapers with essays, our senators’ and Congress people’s offices with phone calls and e-mails. A group of us are traveling to Capitol Hill to meet with key senators that our Jewish call for justice might resonate loudly and effectively in the halls of Congress. Through all of these channels and more, we are sharing this religious exhortation:
Let us seize this opportunity to pass common-sense immigration reform legislation and help drive the sword of injustice out of our world.
Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, N.Y., and chair of the Justice Peace & Civil Liberties Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.